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Setting up a Notebook for Elderly People: lenovo T400 With Xubuntu GNU/Linux

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This is a short story on how I set up a notebook for an elderly woman in order to do basic stuff on the internet.

Background story

(You can skip this part where I describe the reason to set up a new system and switch from Windows to GNU/Linux.)

A friend of mine (aged around 75 I guess) had a lenovo T60 with Windows 7 Pro, Firefox, Thunderbird (2 email accounts), Skype, a couple of card games, a bit of MS Office, Epson Stylus SX235W printer/scanner combination, and a some malware she got during the recent weeks.

She asked me for help and I decided that I want to invest some time in order to avoid additional Windows maintenance work in the long run. Therefore, I decided to switch her notebook to GNU/Linux. She lost her Windows installation DVD (if it was given to her in the first place), got a free malware scanner which did a bad job and resulted in an infected system with poor performance.

With her usage profile, it should be almost no hassle to switch to GNU/Linux: most tools stay the same (Thunderbird, Firefox, Skype) and others have similar substitutions (e.g., LibreOffice for MS Office). GNU/Linux has not the tendency to get weirder and slower during normal usage as Windows has.

Issues with Ubuntu, fail of hardware

(You can skip this section, if you're not interested in the story of a dying notebook.)

On Sunday, she invited me for great home-made lunch (her part of the deal) and afterward I backed up her data: Firefox and Thunderbird profiles and approximately one gigabyte of photos, documents, and a bit of mp3 music. No big deal.

I booted an Ubuntu 14.04 LTS memory stick and installed it on her hard drive. The performance was awful slow. While I was already configuring stuff and copying data back to the disk, I did some internet research. Looks like the Compiz window manager was not working well with the integrated intel graphics. I was not able to find a way to fix it. So I decided to do the whole set-up once again. This time using xubuntu which is not using Xfce instead of Unity/Compiz.

As the system froze multiple times, she said that Windows did crash the recent time as well. So I bootet from a grml USB memory stick and checked the hardware. Memtest86+ showed no issues. Booting grml in debug mode never finished booting: the system froze before finishing booting at different spots with no error messages. Booting xubuntu also did not finish any more. I could not start any operating system at all.

He's dead, Jim.

Luckily, in the newsgroup I found a used lenovo T400 with an SSD for sale. It was slightly younger than the T60 but was able to re-use the docking station and such. With GNU/Linux on the SSD, the system performance would be dramatically better than with the T60.

Setting up T400 with xubuntu

I booted the T400 from the xubuntu memory stick and installed the basic system (overwriting the Windows partition).

The desktop of xubuntu looked way better to me for the given use-case I've got: simple, clean, easy to adopt.

I was able to set-up Firefox and Thunderbird with no hassle by just copying the profile folders. Emails, preferences, and extensions were working flawlessly with it.

For the Epson Stylus SX235W I had to look up drivers for GNU/Linux. I had to install epson-inkjet-printer-201108w_1.0.0-1lsb3.2_amd64.deb, iscan-data_1.29.0-2_all.deb, and iscan_2.29.3-1_usb0.1.ltdl3_amd64.deb (and dependencies). For SANE I had to do some extra steps in order to make the scanner work. Be assured, it really needs the reboot for setting up stuff.

Contrary to Ubuntu (at least out-of-the-box), xubuntu offers a menu for navigating the applications. It's got a favorite menu feature so that I was able to put only the important stuff in the main menu. Security updates are getting installed automatically and I installed TeamViewer for easy remote maintenance.

In the preferences I made sure that certain things got fixed: no virtual desktops (or: limit to one), associate file extensions of MS Office formats to LibreOffice (instead of AbiWord and such), hide unnecessary stuff from menus and the desktop. Health issues did not require special things like bigger font sizes or such.

Explaining the system and outlook

In the end, I explained the whole system to my friend with very simple words, used a lot of analogies to her already known (Windows) world. I let her do all the basic work-flows like reading/writing emails, looking at photographs, scanning and printing a document, locating a downloaded file, playing a game, even installing a new game from the Ubuntu software center, mounting/unmounting an USB memory stick, and - most important - starting TeamViewer.

So far, xubuntu looks like a much better alternative than Windows for this use-case. I was able to hide all unnecessary stuff from direct view. The user interface is not cluttered and almost everything is translated to German.

The simplified xubuntu without the need for a malware scanner and with the underlying SSD, the system is really working fast. My assumption is that the system stays stable and fast with no or minimum support for the next years to come.

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